Being a new member to UKRG I was excited to be offered a bursary to attend my first conference and even more thrilled that it was on the “seedy” world of Art Crime. I went in envisaging horror stories of shoot-outs in galleries, footage of car chases as criminals fled with a Picasso hanging out the back of their boot and some juicy gossip on auction houses and their dodgy dealings. What I came out with was a much greater understanding of what as Museum professionals we should be looking out for as the first warning signs of objects breaching cultural property laws within our collections and what we as registrars should be doing to ensure our due diligence and provenance procedures are followed effectively when acquiring, loaning and displaying objects.
The work of the Spoliation Advisory Panel (SAP) was mostly new to me and I found the information provided, case studies and work that they do both fascinating and invaluable when applying to the roles and responsibilities I carry out in my position as Loans and Touring Assistant at Glasgow Museums.
The SAP were set up in 2000 by DCMS and are a panel who look to assess the moral strength of a range of differing claims from people who have been victims of spoliation and have as a result lost property during the Nazi era. The history of how the SAP was formed is an interesting timeline and materialises from flaws in the 1943 ‘Inter-Allied declaration against acts of dispossession committed in Territories under Enemy Occupation and Control’ to the 1998 Washington Conference Principles where discussions took place to look at the fairness of spoliation cases and the voluntary return of stolen property to the original owners.

The SAP claims process sets requirements in order to qualify. These include:
  • The claimant or claimant’s heir must have lost possession of the property between 1st January 1933 and end of December 1945.
  • The property in question must be in a National Museum within the UK

The claims are judged by the SAP by two terms of reference:

  • Legal Title
  • Moral Strength

What I found most interesting about the panel was the diversity of the people on it. People of Jewish heritage acting as representatives for their community, museum directors, art dealers, moral theologians and lawyers all make up the broad panel allowing claims to be assessed as fairly as possible and covering all aspects of a claim and its intricacies. There is no established rationale and each claim is reviewed on an individual basis.

Since 2009 the recommendations made by the SAP have all been for restitution to a claimant when there is a strong moral claim and the panel has always recommended restitution when it’s been actively sought by the claimants themselves. This was highlighted through some insightful examples of the SAP in practice and really got to the heart of what the panel does. The successful restitution of the Beneventan Missal from the British Library and Constable’s ‘beaching a boat, Brighton’ from Tate demonstrates the still prevalent impact of spoliation from the Nazi era and how as museums we have a moral obligation to ensure we are as confident as we can be about the provenance and history of an object before it enters our collections. On the contrary it was interesting to learn in greater detail about the claim of Renoir’s ‘The Coast of Cagnes’ at Bristol Museums being rejected due to insufficient moral strength related to the history of the painting and its owners.

At the centre of the SAP’s work lies the moral strength of each individual claim and having learnt more about the processes they carry out I feel enthused to continue to develop my knowledge on spoliation and on how we as an industry work together to combat illicit trade.

Written by Becky Storr, Loans and Touring Assistant at Glasgow Museums.